Sara Swords listening and coaching blog post

Listening and Coaching

Being a good listener does not in itself equate to being a good coach but being a bad listener probably does mean poor coaching. I worry that, as coaches, we sometimes apply too rigorously the techniques of active listening within a coaching conversation – paraphrasing and reflecting back – and are busy writing careful notes to feed back an accurate account of what has been said. I was recently running a coaching skills workshop in Asia. When my colleague announced to the group that we would be starting the afternoon with some quick-fire listening skills exercises I was struck how immediately the participants rushed to get paper and pen. It felt like listening was being interpreted as recording.

Such a pursuit can get in the way of a coach tuning in to more than words and being fully present for the coachee. It can also lead to the coachee, particularly when new to coaching, trying to say the right thing and gain the reassurance of the coach who can be seen as their individual expert or advisor.

This happens particularly in country contexts where coachees come from hierarchical cultures, where they are not used to being given air time or where coaching supports learning programmes and the coachee wants to gain the approval of their coach and ‘pass’ this particular assessment (the coaching component). The irony here is that many coaches I work with feel a great need and desire for the coaching to be useful for their coachee and we spend time exploring what is their responsibility within this and what needs to be held by the coachee.

So if it is not about techniques, what does listening do to create a successful coaching conversation?

A coach:

  • Tunes in by listening closely to the words used, the tone, where emotion lies and levels of energy. This is demanding and requires a coach ahead of a coaching conversation to clear their minds of other distractions and prepare for the discipline of giving their coachee the full attention they deserve and being discerning in what they pick up on.
  • Spots clues of deeper level thinking which could be worth exploring during the coaching (beliefs, assumptions).
  • Observes gaps in what a coachee is saying.
  • Draws attention accurately to images, metaphors and language that they have heard.


All of these reveal a coach who has not got in the way of what is going on around them. They are not simply using the coaching skills of listening and questioning but are creating a relational space in which the coachee is sense making in the moment, rather than giving account. This leads to a shift in power in the relationship.

The coachee feels able to open up and explore possibilities because they feel legitimised and encouraged to do so. That is when the exciting work begins. When the coachee realises they are a ‘work in progress’ then there is a world of options to discover, starting with their inner resourcefulness.